Review: The Dark Ages, an Age of Light

Last night I watched the first episode of a new BBC documentary on one of my favourite subjects–‘The Dark Ages’, with the self-consciously contradictory subtitle, ‘An Age of Light.’ Here’s what I thought of it.

I honestly had no idea what to expect going in, as I’d just seen a throwaway reference to it and thought ‘hey, that looks cool!’ and then figured I’d check it out on iPlayer. (My house has neither tv nor tv license, but we’re on the internet all the time.) Like many other people–or let’s face it, basically everybody else who studies late antiquity–I am defensive about the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, because so many books on the subject made for popular consumption seem to imply that once Rome left Britain in AD 410 or so, the entire populace immediately reverted to savagery, sitting around in mud huts in the darkness waiting for the Saxons to come and take them over. I am a Celticist after all, and so feel that the idea that there was a rich poetic, political culture developing all on its own at the time is sadly neglected.

But back to the programme. It turned out to be a discipline of history I’m fascinated by but fairly ignorant of, which is great as it means less grumbling at the screen about how they’ve not taken X’s theory of whatever into account about Y in a documentary intended for laypeople. No, other than a reasonable understanding of post-Roman history, I was a layperson!

The great thing about art history is that the visual medium is right there to be pointed at. So host Waldemar Januszczak (and I haven’t the faintest idea how to pronounce that) takes us from mausoleum to basilica, from museum to mosaic, pointing out how this figure of Jesus looks so much like this one of Apollo.

The chronology jumps around a bit–we start post-Roman, move backward to Diocletian and back up to Constantine, back to ancient Egypt and onward to Ravenna. This isn’t hard to follow, though, because the journey is organised by topic rather than timeline. By the time you’re looking at statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis, you understand where all this is going, because you’ve already been there.

The programme traces the development of Christian iconography from its earliest days of ichthys symbols and the delightfully intricate Sator square, the latter of which the host demonstrates by scribbling away on a rock face with a bit of chalk. (It’s also the name of a place in Ankh-Morpork, because one should always throw in a bit of Pratchett where it fits.) It shows us the beginnings of representative, rather than purely symbolic, Christian art and right up to the point where Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire and has to be made Very, Very Grand.

A few things niggled at me while watching it. The first is just presentation–I understand the BBC does a lot of documentaries, and in order to spread out the budget can’t hire reenactors or stage interesting scenes for all of them, I really do, but I am only so entertained by watching a single show host zig and zag manically across the continent gleefully pointing at stuff or posing dramatically on mountaintops. This was the same trouble I had with History of Celtic Britain, though it was mitigated a bit by seeing people I know on telly. So watching Januszczak bound about, pulling maps and magnets and action figures out of his pockets like Historian Willy Wonka wasn’t doing it for me the whole time. I also found the use of the term ‘pagan’ to be a vast oversimplification–even though yes, technically ‘everything that isn’t Judeo-Christian’ is a valid use of the word, Apollo and Isis are hardly part of the same pantheon. Then there was a bit about the Shroud of Turin where he says he knows it can’t be real because ‘that’s not what Jesus looked like,’ despite just having spent several minutes explaining that the early iconographers had borrowed Apollo’s image for Jesus because nobody actually knew what he looked like. The arguments for the Shroud being a medieval forgery are already compelling, but it seems like he may as well have looked like that image as any of the others.

That said, Januszczak’s enthusiasm for his subject really shines through, and the information he presents is both clear and interesting. I look forward to learning, next week, just what those crazy barbarians did for us. And by ‘us’, I assume he means Romans….

The Dark Ages: An Age of Light episode 1, ‘The Clash of the Gods’, is available on BBC iPlayer until Christmas day. The next episode, ‘What the Barbarians Did for Us’ airs Tuesday, 4 December at 9pm on BBC 4.


3 Replies to “Review: The Dark Ages, an Age of Light”

  1. Thanks for reminding me to catch up on this on iPlayer; completely forgot to (a) watch it or (b) record it. Januszczak (I think it’s pronounced Yanooshak, going on the names of a few Poles I knew when I was at school) has always been for me an irritating if knowledgeable arts presenter, his mannerisms often getting in the way of his message, but I think his attempt to challenge populist beliefs about the post-Roman period and the origins of Christian iconography is very laudable.

    As for the Turin Shroud, whatever its age and provenance I do think there is still much of an enigma surrounding its manufacture (if it’s a forgery, who had the audacity to ‘fake’ it up in such a way, and how exactly was it done?) and its putative origins (it’s intriguing how its emergence in the 14th century relates to both contemporary and preceding iconography, and to speculate on how its appearance may have influenced subsequent pictorial representations).

  2. Oh, do watch, it’s definitely worth it! I have the same feelings on Januszczak as a host, really-he clearly knows his stuff and it’s very interesting stuff, he just buzzes around a bit too much for my liking. But worth seeing all the same.

    The Turin shroud is fascinating. I tend to think it’s a forgery because I am an awful skeptic, and I think radiocarbon dating puts it around the 13th century, but it’s incredible all the same. (And the debates over whether a thing from the high middle ages is actually older is day to day life for people doing medieval Welsh, anyway…!)

    Thanks for all your comments lately!

    1. Caught the first prog on iplayer, but the next two may have disappeared by now (until BBC4 re-broadcast it). Great to see many objects and places familiar from books (the Roman catacomb frescos) and past visits (the Ravenna mosaics), but I was not over-convinced by his derivation of early apsidal churches as a conflation of basilica and rotunda, though this may be an accepted scholarly proposition. Janusczak still seems to me to be the Jeremy Clarkson of arts programme, and that still remains a bit of a barrier to me!

      Agree with your comments about the antiquity of texts only surviving in copies from a later period: at least it hlps keep scholars in business, which it wouldn’t if the issue of dating was cut and dried!

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